Wednesday, September 23, 2015

12 Years a Slave

I took a mini-break from Italy to listen to one of the books on my TBR Pile Challenge list, 12 Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup.

Not only was it a fantastic book, I was so surprised to discover that it was an actual memoir, first published in 1854, a year after Solomon Northup was rescued and allowed to return to his family and free status in New York.

I read and was surprised to enjoy Uncle Tom's Cabin a few years ago, and so I couldn't help but compare the two works, published so closely together in time.  While Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel is powerful, you never forget that it is a novel.  Its sentimentality sometimes undermines the message, but Northup's narrative, which is told in a calm but resolute voice, is strengthened by the knowledge that it is not fiction but very sad fact.

I find it surprising and a bit troubling that I never heard of this book before the movie came out.  When I think back to high school required reading lists, this book, which delineates so well the curse that slavery cast over the United States, should definitely be part of every American's education.

Not only is Solomon's story compelling--being a freedman, captured and sold into slavery, set to work on plantation--but it documents how society worked in the 1840's and 1850's, the economic, physical, and agricultural drivers as well as the social and spiritual factors. Absolutely fascinating, and humbling as well. Books like this make you think how you would fare if challenged in a similar way--Solomon Northup is a hero, who balanced a strong will to live, unbreakable bonds of loyalty to his family, and a core of human dignity that wouldn't let him be treated as less than a man without fighting back.

A great book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Part of prepping for my trip to Italy, now less than two weeks away, was to slowly read Irving Stone's magnificent life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Written in 1961, it is a sprawling book that taught me about the life and times and works of Michelangelo (i.e., Renaissance Florence and Rome).

It also taught me about fresco painting, sculpting marble, and provided an excellent orientation guide to Florence and Rome.  I really enjoyed the thought processes that Stone gave to Michelangelo for each of his works of art--why he chose to carve David or the Pieta or Moses as he did or why he chose the particular scenes from the Bible that he did for his Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes.

I also learned about the Popes and the Medicis and the Borgias, as well as fellow artists, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raffaelle, Brunelleschi, and a host of other Renaissance giants.

It was immensely readable, the pacing was great--a long book, it started with Michelangelo as an 11 year old apprentice, and ended with his death at 89.

Stone has written a number of historical biographies of artists and other notable figures--there are a number of them that appeal to me.  Here's the list, lifted from Wikipedia:

  • Lust for Life (1934) – Historical novel based on the life of Vincent van Gogh
  • Sailor on Horseback (1938) – A biography of Jack London
  • Immortal Wife (1944) – Historical novel based on the life of Jessie Benton Frémont
  • Adversary in the House (1947) – Historical novel based on the life of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate, who opposed socialism[3]
  • The Passionate Journey (1949) – Historical novel based on the life of American artist John Noble
  • The President's Lady (1950) – Historical novel based on the life of American president Andrew Jackson and his marriage to Rachel Donelson Jackson
  • Love is Eternal (1954) – Historical novel based on the marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy – (1961) – Historical novel based on the life of Michelangelo
  • Those Who Love (1965) – Historical novel based on the life of John Adams and Abigail Adams
  • The Passions of the Mind (1971) – Historical novel based on the life of Sigmund Freud
  • The Greek Treasure (1975) – based on the discovery of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann
  • The Origin (1980) – Historical novel based on the life of Charles Darwin
  • Depths of Glory (1985) – Historical novel based on the life of Camille Pissarro

  • Now I want to want the movie version, with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II.  I know the casting sounds hokey, but it's gotten good reviews!

    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

    Garden Notes

    One of the best things about summer is when "eating local" means going up to my garden to pick fresh veggies for dinner.

    So in no particular order, here are notes from the garden.

    • I always plant mostly roma tomatoes and make and freeze tomato sauce that I use all year in sauce, soups, chilis, and anything that calls for tomatoes.  This year I planted San Marzanos for the first time and they are doing fantastic. I made my first batch of sauce last weekend.  Here's the recipe for Tomato Glut that I use.
    • For last weekend's batch of tomato glut, just about everything came from my garden--the tomatoes, onion, garlic, carrots, thyme, basil, and parsley.  The only ingredients from my pantry were the salt and pepper, oregano (not sure why I didn't have a pot of it this year!), balsamic vinegar (the secret to the wonderful depth of flavor in the sauce), and celery (which I've never tried to grow).
    • Potatoes!  Finally I have a decent crop.  Where we live in Colorado has very dense, claylike soil so potatoes typically don't do well.  I've tried bags (a disaster).  This year we redid our raised beds, making them 18 inches high, instead of 12.  The result is that we have 18 inches of gardening soil in which to plant potatoes, and I dug up 6 beauties for potato salad two nights ago.  Victory!

    • Peppers - for some reason we didn't plant my favorite anaheims but have lots of poblano and jalapeno peppers, which I use in various salsas.  Here's a link to my favorite summer dish, corn mango salsa.
    • No apples this year.  Our trees are on a every-other-year cycle, so last year we had so many apples we had to prop up the branches to keep them from breaking under the load.  We made lots of applesauce, which we ate all winter and still have a few jars left, and we even had so many apples we made a press and pressed them into juice.
    • Wildflowers - we are into our second year of beekeeping and planted a mini-meadow next to the hives that has been blooming all summer long with a profusion of color.  It's starting to look bedraggled now and the bindweed is choking some plants but it's now one of my favorite parts of the garden and I'm hoping that it will reseed itself and come back strong next year.
    • Sunflowers - we have multiple birdfeeders that we keep stocked with sunflower seeds.  Under two of the feeders, along a south wall, we have a hedge of volunteer sunflowers that sprouted with the leavings of messy birds.  Now, we have a pair of goldfinches plus a lot of insects and other less vibrant birds who feast on the sunflowers outside the living room window.
    Mr. Goldfinch has breakfast

    • Perennials - I made a concerted effort to fill in my flower beds with perennials, leaving the annuals for the containers on the deck.  Bee balm is my new favorite perennial--spiky, bright, and exotic looking.  The lavender I planted last year is finally blooming, and I finally got around to adding phlox to the beds with their pretty party dress colors.
    Bee Balm

    • Peaches and corn - I don't grow either, but Colorado produces some of the best in the world.  If you ever come to Colorado, make sure you treat yourself to peaches from Palisade and Olathe corn.  It's what we live on in August and September!
    • Less lawn, more mulch - we tore out big sections of the "natural" lawn around the garden, which was really mostly weeds that we mowed, and replaced it with bark mulch.  The result is cleaner, neater, and easier to take care of.  We found an organic weed killer, Avenger, that we use to keep the weeds from taking back the land from the bark mulch. It works great. does your garden grow?

    Wednesday, August 19, 2015

    The Uncle from Rome

    I found out about The Uncle from Rome, by Joseph Caldwell, in the anthology Italy in Mind, which included the first chapter.  I read it a few months ago, and was hooked.  I needed to read the rest of the story!  So I did.

    Here's the premise: Michael Ruane is an opera singer from New York who has spent his career as a comprimario--that is, one who is part of the supporting cast but never is the star of the show.  He is visiting Naples in order to sing in a production of Tosca and to produce and sing in a one-night performance of Curlew River by Benjamin Britten as a tribute to one of his former singing teachers.  This is his one opportunity to sing the lead role.

    Michael is asked, make that begged, by the diva starring in Tosca to assume the role of the "uncle from Rome" at the wedding of the son of her former music teacher.  Michael agrees to do so, being fluent in Italian, and is swept away by the role.  He assumes that the role is for the wedding only, but the family embraces him, respects him, and pulls him into their crazy, soap-opera, pizza-fueled world.  And he lets them because he discovers how much he loves being a respected uncle.  

    The family that he pretends to be now part of is classically dysfunctional and Michael relishes trying to solve their horrific problems--one son is threatening to kill the other son, the newlyweds are reeling from their own shotgun wedding, and the matriarch is blind to reality.

    In addition to all of this, Michael's former lover recently died of AIDS and he is feeling empty and angry with himself for being unable to grieve as he wants and expects himself to do.  In the cast of Curlew River, Michael finds a young man, Piero, with a gorgeous voice who challenges him to let himself mourn, heal, and try on new, scary roles.  There is one incredible scene where Michael and Piero climb a hill and look out over Naples below them--Piero echoes Satan from the King James version of the Bible and says to Michael "I will give you all this if you bow down and worship me."

    What makes The Uncle from Rome so interesting and satisfying as a novel is the way that Caldwell explores the idea of how the roles a person assumes can frame or even dictate the parameters of that person's life--whether as a lover, a diva, a bit player, a rejected lover, a mourner, a matriarch, a son, or an uncle...from Rome.

    Once again, I enjoyed reading about Italian culture and place.  I learned more about the food, the customs, and especially enjoyed the opera world depicted, a world in which the relative merits of divas are hotly, passionately debated.   I doubt I would have discovered this book if I hadn't been looking for books to read that are set in Italy, but I am so glad I did find it.

    The final scene is one of the best endings to a book that I've read in a long time.  All I will say is that Michael somehow manages to pull all the roles he is playing both on and off the stage into one shining moment that made my jaw drop and then made me laugh with relief.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2015

    My Brilliant Friend

    I've been hearing good things about Elean Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels so I gave the first one, My Brilliant Friend, a try.

    Set in Naples, Italy in the 1950's and 1960's, it is the chronicle of the friendship of two girls as they grow up on the mean streets and battle teachers, parents, lovers, and their own demons.

    Elena is the girl who works hard in school and follows the academic path to adulthood--riddled with self-doubt that accentuates her awkwardness, she longs for praise and acceptance.  Lila is a very intelligent girl, probably in the genius category, who never has to work hard to be top of the class but leaves school early to work for her father.  She is an ugly duckling who makes herself over into a swan, orchestrates a brilliant marriage for herself, and pines for the opportunity to use the brain cells that seem to rust for lack of exercise.  She is charismatic but has no channel for her charisma or intelligence.

    It was an interesting book to read, but really not what I expected.  Much darker, much bleaker, and much sadder.  I'm interested in reading the other two books in the trilogy, but I'm not sure when.  I need a bit of distance, I think.

    Reading books like this make me appreciate how far we women have come since the days that some would like to label "the good old days."

    Monday, August 03, 2015

    Florence by Night

    I'm currently slowly reading Irving Stone's 1961 best-seller The Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo.

    The book is excellent--well-written, a great way to learn about Renaissance art before my trip to Italy this fall, and an excellent guidebook to Florence.

    I've been looking up places on my iPad and learning about the geography as I go. Stone also has some lovely lyrical descriptions that make me catch my breath, and so I have lots of ear-marked pages.

    Here's one from the first section of the book, entitled "The Sculpture Garden," where Michelangelo Buonarroti as an eleven-year-old begins working as an apprentice to Ghirlandaio's fresco studio.  He steals out one night and crosses the Arno and climbs up to the Belvedere fort and looks down on Florence:
    Florence, luminous in the full moonlight, so close that he felt he could touch the Signoria or the Duomo with his fingers, was a sight of such incredible beauty that he drew in his breath sharply.  No wonder the young men of the city sang their romantic ballads to their town, with whom no girl could compete.  All true Florentines said, "I will not live out of the sight of the Duomo." For him the city was a compact mass of pietra serena, the streets cut through with a mason's chisel, looking like dark rivers, the cobbled piazzas, gleaming white in the moonlight. The palaces stood sentinel, a couple of ranges higher than the modest houses clustered so tightly about them; and piercing the creamy gold sky the spires of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, the magnificent three-hundred-foot thrust of the Signoria. Making a little group of its own were the great red dome of the cathedral, the glistening small white dome of the Baptistery, the noble pink flesh of the Campanile. Around all was the turreted, tower-studded city wall.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2015

    High Summer Read-a-thon 2015 Wraps Up! #HSReadathon

    I can't honestly say that I read more than I normally do last week, but I did have fun participating in Michelle's (True Book Addict) High Summer Read-a-Thon.

    I read Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water, which is a police commissioner murder mystery set in Sicily.  Sicily is not on my itinerary for the trip to Italy this fall, but I enjoyed reading the mystery and especially loved looking up place names, recipes for dishes mentioned, and continuing to learn about the Mediterranean world.

    After I finished The Shape of Water I dived right into Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes.  I have it marked on GoodReads as read, but I honestly don't think I've read it before because none of it is familiar.  Of course, if I did read it while I was pregnant or when my kids were infants or toddlers, that could account for my forgetting it.  I find those years to be quite blurry!

    Musings aside, I am loving Under the Tuscan Sun--the house restoration is sort of the side story for me.  I'm loving the food and the flowers and the pace.  So ready to devote my summers to gardening, reading, and dreaming!  Mayes has several Tuscany-themed non-fiction books, so I may read more from her later this summer.

    I'm still enjoying listening to Winston Graham's Demelza--book 2 in the Poldark Saga.  And, enjoying the min-series, but the pacing is driving me crazy.  They just cover the high points of the story and skip over what I think are key parts.

    I'm eager to get back to Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, and another book arrived that I'm chomping on the bit to start, The Uncle from Rome, by Joseph Caldwell.  I read an excerpt from it in Italy in Mind, which is an anthology of Italy-themed writing, and was hooked.

    Who says High Summer Read-a-Thon has to end?

    Read on!

    Monday, July 20, 2015

    High Summer Read-a-Thon

    I'm participating in my first official read-a-thon, though my family tells me my life is one big read-a-thon, but then it takes one to know one!

    Michelle at The True Book Addict is hosting the High Summer Read-a-Thon.  And since I plan on reading all week, when I'm not working, gardening, or cooking goes.

    I've just started The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri as part of my Reading up on Italy project. It takes place on Sicily and is a murder mystery.

    In the same vein, I'm also reading The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. Michelangelo is just heading back to Florence from Rome in order to win the commission to carve David. I am absolutely loving this book!

    I'm also listening to Demelza, by Winston Graham, trying to keep ahead of the PBS/BBC mini-series currently airing. Loving it, just like I loved book one, Ross Poldark, in the series. If you haven't joined the blog tour for both books, check it out here...fabulous prizes at stake!

    If I finish The Shape of Water this week, I'll most likely start The Italians by John Hooper although I hear Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes calling to me. Just rewatched the movie Saturday night and I'm not sure I have ever actually read the book.

    Looking forward to hearing what fellow read-a-thoners are reading.

    Read on!

    Saturday, July 18, 2015

    Go Set a Watchman

    The problem with Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman is that it's just not a very good novel.  It's a rejected first novel, and that's exactly the way it reads.  It is jerky--the beginning is slow while we meet the main characters and fairly dull.  Even when Jean Louise Finch (i.e., Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird)  reminiscences about life when she and her brother Jem were young, I found myself yawning and itching to get to the main story.  

    When Lee finally does get to the main story--that of Jean Louise's discovery that her father, Atticus Finch, and her beau Hank are anti-desegregation--the writing came alive, for awhile.  Her dialogue became sharp and her prose incisive.  However, Lee wasn't able to sustain her flashes of brilliance and the novel meandered as Jean Louise fell into stream-of-consciousness wrestling with her new reality and how to reconcile it with her memories of being raised by Atticus and their housekeeper, Calpurnia.

    This is an ambitious story arc, and I think the editor who rejected Lee's manuscript was right.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a much tighter story, with clear cut villains and heroes and a moral center that is undeniable.  It's an easier story to tell and more suited to Lee's style as a writer.

    I don't have a problem with the story of Go Set a Watchman--that of an idealist returning home to find her heroes have feet of clay and having to finally start to think for herself.  I just don't think Go Set a Watchman tells this story very well.  I never really believed that Atticus kept his racism completely hidden from Jean Louise her entire life.  How could she, who claimed to be "color blind," never have seen what her straight talking father believed?  It's not like she never returned home for visits.  

    Despite it's problems, I want to reiterate that there is some powerful writing in Go Set a Watchman--the scene in which Jean Louise argues with Atticus is one of the saddest scenes I've ever read, but in the end, I just didn't believe it. Lee never made me believe that Jean Louise was duped by her own father.  And the first job of a writer is to make the reader believe that what he or she is saying is true, insofar as creating a believable world, no matter how fantastic or far-fetched it is.

    Go Set a Watchman laid out the bones of a story that needed to be reworked and rewitten and revised and shaped and pruned, but it never was.  

    While Lee developed To Kill a Mockingbird out of the backstory contained in Go Set a Watchman, it's too bad she didn't tackle the "you can't go home again" part of Go Set a Watchman and give us a novel that works.

    The editor who rejected this novel all those years ago was right.  This novel wasn't ready for publication.

    Sunday, July 12, 2015

    David Copperfield

    I'd been meaning to reread David Copperfield by Charles Dickens for several years now.  My enjoyment of Dickens novels has been rekindled after lying dormant for awhile, and having enjoyed Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son, all it took was catching sight of a read-along on GoodReads Pickwick Club group to get me all rev'ed up.

    The read-along had a wonderful leisurely schedule (roughly 3 chapters a week), and I only fell behind a few times and was able to catch up quickly.

    I think I prefer reading long novels in this way, which is very similar to the serialization format in which many of the novels of Dickens and his fellow Victorian authors were originally published.  You can really get to know the characters over a period of time, internalize their story, feel their pain or joy or hope or despair.  The goal is to experience the story not just rush on to the next book.

    This was either my fourth or fifth time reading the book.  I know I read it at least twice as a teenager and at least once as an adult, but the last time was a good 25 years ago, so while I remembered most of the story arc and many of the characters, some of the side stories were fresh.

    I also really enjoyed reading DC along with the Pickwick Club.  I believe they are reading all of the novels in order, and have now plunged on into Bleak House.  I just popped in for the DC read.  I learned so much from all the comments. My fellow readers did a lot of research that really enhanced the reading for me.  Info about the illustrations, including details about the painting and furnishings shown in the illustrations that pertain to the story, extracts from letters CD wrote to his friend John Forster during the writing of DC that detail his feelings about the story and the writing process, and interpretations of symbolism, patterns, and comparisons between the characters.

    I really enjoyed comparing the different characters to each other with David as the center.

    Various villains - compare Steerforth to Uriah Heep, one beautiful and one ugly, both contemptible in their absolute disregard for the feelings or welfare of anyone else.  And then compare both to Mr. Murdstone--he sort of is a combination of both Steerforth and Heep--at times attractive, at times ugly and forbidding, but always manipulative and cunning.

    Parental figures - compare Clara, David's mother, and dead father, with Peggotty and Daniel Peggotty, the first of his several surrogate parents.  Other parents include the Micawbers, Aunt Betsey and Uncle Dick (as odd a pair as ever there was, but an effective partnership), and Mr. Wickfield and Agnes.  And then there's Mr. Spenlow and Dora's two aunts, and Mrs. Steerforth and her dead husband , whose scenario parallels David's parents but resulting in markedly different sons.

    Heroines - there's Dora and Agnes, of course, but also Emily and Martha, two virtuous and two fallen wome, who exhibit various shades of helplessness and capability, who show contrasting states of being active and being passive.  And then there's Rosa Dartle.  She's as devoted to Steerforth as Agnes is to David, but Steerforth's selfish nature literally and figuratively disfigures Rosa.

    Friends - Steerforth (again) and Traddles.  I never really thought much about Traddles before, but it struck me on this reading that he was most likely modeled after John Forster, Dickens's closest friend, confidant, and first biographer.  I imagine this never occurred to me before because it's only in the intervening years since my lasting reading of the book that I've read any bios of Dickens and learned about his friendship with Forster.

    David Copperfield is a rich, deep book, a classic of the first order, and definitely my favorite Dickens novel.  I know that I'll be rereading it again someday as it is an immensely satisfying book to read, to discuss, and to think about.